People who cheat on their significant others through digital media often rely on the same argument to excuse their behavior: nothing really happened. Because their infidelity did not involve in-person interactions and/or sexual activity, these straying partners argue that their actions were not really infidelity, or at least not as bad as “real-life” infidelity.
The cyber world has greatly expanded the possibilities of human interaction, and at the same time it has complicated our understanding of infidelity. People whose partners engage in an online affair may feel not only hurt and betrayed, but also unsure whether they are justified in being so upset.
In truth, research and expert opinions consistently suggest that online infidelity and in-person fidelity have similar consequences for individuals and relationships. Internet cheating causes the cheated-on partner to experience similar levels of emotional distress and is equally likely to result in the break-up of a relationship.
In a recent article, clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., states that in his experience, “There is little difference between the two types of infidelity in terms of their impact on relationships. In both cases, trust is broken.”
Study Confirms Emotional Impact of Online Cheating
This opinion is borne out by a 2013 study from Texas Tech University on Facebook infidelity. This research, carried out by doctoral candidates Jaclyn Cravens and Kaitlin Leckie with the assistance of marriage and family therapy associate professor Jason Whiting, used data gathered from Facebookcheating.com in order to evaluate the real-life impact of cyber infidelity.
Facebookcheating.com is a website where people can share stories and ask for advice about their experiences with a partner’s Facebook infidelity. Cravens and her fellow researchers used the data gathered from this website to create a five-stage process model of the typical coping process for people who have discovered that their partners have been unfaithful.
The five stages outlined by the Texas Tech team were (1) noticing warning signs, (2) discovering infidelity, (3) damage appraisal, (4) acting on appraisal and (5) making a relationship decision. These stages appeared to be unique to the experience of online infidelity, particularly when it came to the complexity of step three, during which partners determine how serious a violation of trust the online infidelity represents.
However, the Texas Tech team found no ultimate difference when it came to the overall emotional impact of Facebook cheating. People whose partners cheated online experienced equally strong emotional responses to the betrayal. These individuals typically felt shock, anger, hurt and a loss of trust in their partners.
Standing By Your Own Feelings About a Partner’s Online Activity
Individuals and relationships are all unique. The behavior that individuals consider to be acceptable, as well as the boundaries that have been set for relationships, are never exactly the same.
This lack of definitive and universal rules can make it more difficult to come to a firm decision and feel justified in that decision when deciding that a partner betrayed you. The relative newness of the Internet world and the many different kinds of Internet interaction only add confusion to the matter.
However, this subjectivity also means that your feelings about and response to any form of cheating are just as legitimate as any one else’s. The well-worn excuse that an affair “only” happened online should not make you feel that your shock, anger and other emotions that accompany a betrayal of trust are not justified. As professor of psychology Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., states in her own article about Internet infidelity, “Just because the cheating takes place online doesn’t mean it’s any less painful.”